Best Time to Photograph Birds in Natural Light

During my initial days of photographing birds, my priority was to click as many birds as possible, without giving much concern to time or light conditions. If you are just starting out, you might also be like that. And that’s just fine. It is good to develop your bird watching skills and for documenting.

Are you wondering why your images lack that awesomeness? If yes, this article can help you.

But when you start thinking of making wonderful photos rather than clicking snaps, the importance of time, lighting and weather conditions sets in. These can set the mood and quality to your bird photos.

Best time to photograph birds
Jungle Owlet just before sunset – 5:50 p.m

In this article I am giving some example photos and the time and light conditions when they were made.

So, what is the best time to photograph birds?

Without any doubt, the first 2 to 3 hours from sunrise is the best time for any type of bird photography.

Golden hours in the late evenings are also perfect. During these hours, sunlight is slanted, saturated and less intense.

This is especially true if you are photographing water birds. Waterbirds are usually found in open areas without any canopies to provide shaded or diffused light.

Morning and evening golden hours are perfect for creating silhouettes and rim lighting images.


Silhouette of a Black-winged Stilt during sunset – 6:00 pm – an example of saturated sky

Let us see why morning and evening are the best time to photograph birds. What about other times, say noon? Also how to photograph birds at midday and get good results?

Why morning & evening are the best time for photography?

Because these two important factors are most suitable during these times:

  • When birds are most active
  • Quality of natural light

Quality of Natural Light

A photograph is made by light. If there is no light, there is no photograph

Unknown author

What constitute the quality of light?

  • Intensity of light – bright / medium / low light
  • Angle of light – Front / Side / Back / Top lights
  • Color saturation – white / warm / cold
  • Light diffusion – soft or harsh light
Left – harsh mid-day light | Right – soft, partly diffused evening light

From the above two images of an endemic Nilgiri Flycatcher, it is clear how light can make or break a photograph.

So, time is an important factor that determines the quality of light. And quality of light determines the quality of your photograph.

There are some cases where you use flashes, but generally I don’t advocate flash for birding. It can scare many birds.

I usually avoid harsh side light and top lights.

During early morning and late evening, sunlight is saturated with red, orange and pink colors making the perfect conditions for most artistic nature photography.

When birds are active – early morning and late evening

Painted Bush Quail (Perdicula erythrorhyncha) photo from Munnar, Kerala
Painted Bush Quail – 7:30 a.m – from Munnar, Kerala

Generally, all types of birds – forest, water or common – are active during morning and evening. In places like tropical south India and hilly areas, activity starts before sunrise and continues till about 8 – 9 a.m. As the day becomes hotter, the number of sightings decrease.

How photograph birds during mid-day & get good results?

Although mornings and evenings are the best time, that doesn’t mean you cannot create beautiful images at other times.

Because there are also other factors that determine the quality of natural light:

  • Weather – rainy / overcast
  • Foliage / upper canopy

These two factors create soft light, which is great for photography.

So, if you can spot a bird under good lighting, you can create great images.

Depending on the type of bird and its habitat, light conditions vary greatly. For example, rainy day times are great opportunities to get vivid green compositions. Take a look at the photo of the Loten’s Sunbird below.

Lotens Sunbird in Flight - Birds of Kerala
Lotens Sunbird on a rainy day – time 11:30 a.m – The rainy weather helped to get the vivid green and red colors even at noon

Conclusion

So, is there a best time to photograph birds?

Yes, morning & evening, but not necessarily. You can make beautiful bird photos at any time of the day. The important point here is to learn how to avoid harsh light and to spot a bird.

So the next time you go out for bird photography, try at different times during the day and explore how you can make use of the best light.

Happy birding!

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